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Not All Calories Are Created Equal

Source: Mother Jones

Source: Mother Jones

Coke’s anti-obesity ads caused quite a stir a few weeks ago, drawing sharp and widespread criticism that Coke isn’t taking responsibility for the role soda plays in the obesity epidemic (and in other conditions, primarily diabetes).  When the ad came out, ad veteran Alex Bogusky tweeted, “Tagline contest! Science says Coke doesn’t = happiness. So what’s the new tag? “Coke: None of this shit is our fault;”” and The Atlantic ran an article with the snappy headline: “Coke’s New Anti-Obesity Ad: Lots of Skinny, Happy People Holding Cans.”  New York Times food writer Mark Bittman came out aggressively saying “Coke is not part of the solution. It’s a big part of the problem,” and even AdWeek called the ads “awkward” and “shameless.”

For what it’s worth (I’m bracing for attack), I actually didn’t the core ad (the 2-minute one I link to above) was that terrible (the one showing someone laughing and burning 140 calories was a different story).  I don’t dispute critics’ primary issue with the ads — that the underlying point (“a calorie is just a calorie”) is flat out false.  Would it have been more accurate to say something like “sugar kills?”  Maybe, but in defense of the Coke ads, obesity is a massive, complicated, multifaceted problem.  And from my perspective, one of the issues is that lots of people don’t even have basic knowledge of the fact that problems start when calories in exceed calories out….even when the calories indeed work differently once they enter our bodies.  Some people have no idea there are even calories in drinks, of if they’re aware, they don’t know how many are in a can.  People don’t understand labels.  Hell, lots of people can’t read even the labels.  So, yes, the details of the ads weren’t right….and that’s not OK.  And I agree, “shiny skinny people holding cans” are far from the face of the obesity epidemic.  But looking down from the 30,000 foot view, Coke distributed a message that (sadly) might be a new one for lots of Coke drinkers.  They took one little tiny stab at a big, huge, difficult issue issue…and if they got even one family talking about the calories around their dinner table, I think it’s a step in the right direction.  And I think Coke has a huge responsibility to continue to work to lower obesity and diabetes rates, not just through education, but more importantly, through product and distribution decisions.

Now that that’s out of the way, back to the “all calories are not created equal point.”   Much of the criticism of the ads revolves around the fact that sugar — particularly the sugar in Coke (high-fructose corn syrup) is really, really, really bad for you.  As Bittman put it, “Soda is a fructose delivery system as tobacco is a nicotine delivery system.”  The long-standing star doctor in the fructose discussion is Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF, who asserts that sugar is poison.  According to Dr. Lustig, the increase in sugar consumption is the cause of the increase in obesity….fructose being the main culprit: “Different calories have different metabolic fates in the body.  Those from fructose overwhelm the liver, forcing the pancreas to make more insulin and driving more energy into fat cells.”

Dr. Lustig is very convincing, and reading the “sugar is poison” articles can get pretty scary pretty fast — particularly in a world where fructose is all around us, not just in Coke.  According to Wikipedia, the highest dietary sources of fructose are foods containing table sugar (sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, and fruit juices – coincidentally all things that bring comfort, build community, delight our taste buds, and awaken memories (at least for me).  For example, every holiday season I feel nostalgic thinking about devouring my grandma’s famous tea ring Christmas morning.  I always have a piece of cake on my birthday (it feels weird to put a candle in anything else).  And as a parent, food is part of the way I think about making memories for my kids.

Now, as the attacks on sugar build, I’m left asking myself whether I’m ready to re-frame the way I think about sugar.  Sugar fits the definition of a “real food,” and has therefore always fit within the constraints of what I feel good about eating.  But the reality is, it’s just not very good for me.  Beyond that, if I eat too much of it, I get volatile and cranky…my skin erupts…I get tired.  But despite all of this, and years of thinking about it, I’ve never fully given up sugar.  A combination of social norms, nostalgia, comfort, taste and maybe even addiction has made permanently eliminating the white stuff tough.  And beyond it being structurally difficult, I wholeheartedly want to believe in moderation.  I want to believe in choice versus restriction.  But I’m now left wondering, is this what smokers were saying 50 years ago?

What do you think?  Will people look back in 50 years and view sugar the way we now view cigarettes?  How have you interpreted the sugar debate and applied it to your life?  Have you tried quitting sugar altogether and been successful?  Or (like me), tried, fallen flat, and tried again?

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about the sugar discussion, here are two long articles to check out:

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